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Morris: Safe Havens

If you are looking for that moment of despair, that moment when Reese Havens slammed his bat against the back of the dugout, that moment when Havens began wondering if turning down a $1 million signing bonus was not such a good idea, well, stop searching.

It never happened.

Havens’ way is to instead look inward where he finds a quiet and strong confidence in himself. He will tell you, and USC coach Ray Tanner will tell you, Havens never wavered in his belief in himself, even through two seasons as USC’s shortstop that — at best — could be described as disappointing.

“I always knew I was a good player, and I always knew what I was capable of,” Havens says.

Tanner goes deeper in his assessment.

“He has the uncanny ability to deal with adversity,” Tanner says. “It’s not arrogance. It’s just confidence.”

So, instead of sulking or putting himself down, Havens gave himself pep talks. The conversations went something like this: “You’re better than this. Relax. Go out there and have a good time. Work hard. Take extra swings in the batting cage. Lift weights harder.”

Those conversations are less frequent these days. Havens spent this past summer in the Cape Cod Baseball League re-inventing his game. He returned to produce the kind of season for USC that again has pro scouts intrigued.

Havens entered this weekend with a .390 batting average, a staggering increase over his career average of .266 entering the season. He has 12 home runs, or three more than in the previous two seasons. At shortstop, his fielding percentage has jumped from .943 to .977.

Over a three-year period, Havens has gone from a projected first-round pick in the Major League Baseball draft, to a non-prospect, and back to being a projected first rounder. Through it all, Havens’ confidence never was shaken.

His father, Brent, says his son always has believed in himself. While a seventh-grader at Christ Our King-Stella Maris school in Mount Pleasant, Havens was a member of the Bishop England High School junior varsity baseball team. Brent and Nancy would transport their son daily to the high school for baseball practice.

One day, as the JV team prepared to board a bus for a road trip, Bishop England varsity coach Mike Darnell had other plans. His starting shortstop was unable to play, so Havens joined the varsity starting lineup.

“When he got out there, I felt like it sort of summed him up,” Brent Havens says. “He felt like he belonged out there, and he looked like he belonged out there. ... You could tell he was younger, but he fit.”

Tanner recalled a similar incident earlier that summer when Havens participated in USC’s camp. Tanner approached the youngster and inquired, “Are you in ninth or 10th grade?”

“No,” Tanner recalls Havens saying. Tanner found out later that he was watching an advanced seventh-grader.

Havens also did some kicking for the Bishop England football team in high school. One season, he pulled a left quadriceps muscle while playing soccer. When the coach asked for another kicker to step up, Havens interceded to say that he would kick with his other foot. His father says Havens’ kickoffs that game went deeper with his right foot.

It is the same let’s-get-it-done approach Havens took this past summer when confronted with the idea of changing both his approach while batting and while playing shortstop.

“Reese was just as cooperative as any player I’ve ever been around,” says Mike Roberts, his coach for the Cotuit Kettleers of the Cape Cod league and the former coach at North Carolina.

“Not only was he cooperative,” Roberts says, “he was very open to my suggestions. Not one day did he ever say, ‘Coach, why are we doing this? Why are we doing this?’”

Roberts first sought Tanner’s approval to work on Havens’ game. Roberts believed that Havens’ batting averages of .259 and .274 in his first two USC seasons were related to his swing.

Tanner says he had doubts about Havens’ swing because it never seemed to come easy for him. Havens constantly was in search of the perfect swing. On occasion he found it. More often than not, his search was futile.

Roberts uses his son, Brian, as Exhibit A for how a player should swing a bat. From an early age, Roberts worked with his son to use a “buggywhip” swing of the bat. Roberts got the term “buggywhip” from his father, who knew what it was to ride in a buggy and whip a horse. The same whipping concept, Roberts says, applies to swinging a bat.

First off, Roberts adjusted Havens’ trigger point, dropping his hands from near his shoulders to closer to his waist.

“I knew that there are very few guys who can hold their hands as high as he was holding them and still have tremendous bat speed because so many guys today use too much body in their swings,” Roberts says. “Reese was what I call a body hitter instead of a hands hitter.”

Next, Roberts took all body movement out of Havens’ swing, including his stride with his feet. In session after session, and even into games, Havens was allowed to use only his hands while swinging a bat. Roberts pitched to the outside of home plate and the left-handed hitting Havens lined balls to left field. Pitches over the middle of the plate were hit to center field, and those inside pitches went to right field.

“He did it,” Roberts says of Havens, “although I wouldn’t say easily. But he immediately began to understand the concept.”

Finally, Roberts added leg movement to Havens’ swing. Roberts says Havens immediately began hitting “rockets” to all fields. When Havens hit line drives against the 90-mph-plus fastballs of Missouri’s Aaron Crow, Roberts was convinced that his latest project was on his way.

At the same time, Roberts approached Havens about his throws from shortstop. For whatever reason, Havens had abandoned throwing overhand to first base.

“Reese, you’re not a prospect flipping the ball to first base,” Roberts says he told Havens. “If you want to be a prospect, get behind the baseball and throw it every single day because there’s a scout here every day, and if you want to play shortstop you need to throw the baseball.”

Roberts says there are games where a scout might not see a shortstop make a long throw to first base. So, Roberts has his shortstops take several infield grounders prior to each game about 20 feet onto the outfield grass. He also has his shortstops make throws from the outfield grass when warming up between innings.

Roberts believes Havens re-developed his arm and can now make all the throws. His footwork at shortstop continues to be a work in progress. Havens sometimes lifts his knees “like a Tennessee Walking Horse,” according to Roberts, instead of gliding after ground balls.

Scouts have told Roberts that Havens could play any of the four infield positions as a professional, depending on what team drafts him in June. He is considered a first- or second-round selection, meaning he will likely command a bonus in the $1 million range.

That is exactly where, three years ago, most figured Havens would be this June. Several major league teams promised Havens that kind of money coming out of high school, yet he stayed true to his word that he wanted to play college baseball first.

There was talk then that the money was not important because Havens hailed from a well-to-do family. Havens’ parents have long lived comfortably while raising their three children and running Havens Picture Framing in Mount Pleasant.

His father says it was only natural for his son to have second thoughts about turning down the guaranteed money, but no different from the second thoughts Reese would have had playing professional baseball while thinking about missing the college game.

Havens himself? He is so confident in his every decision and every action, he would never allow anyone to believe he second-guessed himself.

“Never. Never,” Havens says of any second thoughts. “I don’t regret the decision I made one bit. Failing early on in my career here is going to do nothing but help me, and has done nothing but help me. My chance will come to play pro ball, but I’m just enjoying it right now here.”

With that, Havens walked confidently to the USC dugout at Sarge Frye Field, a place where Tanner says his unflappability does nothing but rub off on his teammates.

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